A tiny but increasing number of non-Muslims are turning to Sharia courts to resolve civil disputes, but critics fear that the courts are inherently discriminatory.
The Muslim Arbitration Tribunal (MAT) is reporting a 15% increase in the number of non-Muslims resorting to Islamic courts to settle commercial disputes this year.
Last year, over 20 non-Muslims opted to have their cases heard in a Sharia court.
A spokesman for the MAT said: “We are increasingly dealing with reconciliation and mediation in marriage”.
But critics are alarmed at the creeping influence of the courts and the unequal status of men and women under Islamic law.
Maryam Namazie, spokesperson for the anti-Sharia campaign group One Law for All, said: “I have spoken to women who are losing custody of their children in the Sharia councils – under Sharia law custody of a child goes to the husband after a certain age, irrespective of the welfare of the child.”
And Joshua Rozenberg, one of Britain’s best-known legal commentators, has previously warned that Sharia is inherently discriminatory.
He said: “Under Sharia, a woman is not regarded as equal to a man. There must be a grave risk that women will be treated less favourably by a Sharia council than those claiming maintenance through a secular court.
“Women may also come under pressure from within their own communities to have a one-sided Sharia ruling endorsed by the civil courts.”
But Dr Saba Al-Makhtar, from the Arab Lawyers Association, defended the presence of the Sharia courts, saying: “Under English law there is room to settle disputes on any ground that it is acceptable to the parties involved, provided it doesn’t conflict with English law”.
He said such resolutions are “an extremely good idea.”
Under the Arbitration Act 1996, Sharia courts can have their rulings upheld by civil courts in England and Wales.
Decisions from the Islamic courts, which often deal with family and financial disputes, can be presented to a family court judge on a two page form for approval.
Last week a Scottish law firm became the first in the country to offer clients advice on Sharia law alongside its conventional legal services.
The controversial service, offered by Glasgow based Hamilton Burns solicitors, allows clients to receive guidance from both a Muslim lawyer fully trained in Scottish law and a Sharia scholar.
Last July it was reported that non-Muslims are increasingly turning to Sharia courts because they find the process “less cumbersome”.